Andy Mitten

Spanish football’s cult heroes

Andy Mitten

View photo


Joseba Etxeberria in action for Athletic Bilbao

The stock of the Spanish footballer has never been higher. Spain's Euro2012 winners are currently enjoying their holidays. They're feted for their brilliance globally, yet when it comes to cult heroes, the people who have given the most enjoyment to fans, some of the most prominent ones in Spain have not been Spanish. One is a Scot, another from a country who haven't qualified for a World Cup since Spain '82. And that was only because he played several blinders.

Known as 'the wizard' by fans who adored him, Jorge Alberto Gonzalez Barillas was an El Salvadorian striker who attracted Spanish sides Cadiz and Atletico Madrid.

In an age before international scouting networks, he had come to their attention in 1982 after being the star player in an El Salvador side which had qualified for only their second World Cup finals in their history. Of his two suitors, one was an established European giant, the other a provincial club with fans who celebrated drinking beer rather than winning.

Given his love of nocturnal attractions, it was perhaps no surprise that Gonzalez chose Cadiz. At the age of 24, his outrageous skills had finally provided his passage out of the deprived Luz barrio of San Salvador.

He embraced his new life in Europe with such a vigour that it didn't enhance his career, keeping the Cadiz publicans and party girls busy. Cadiz fans overlooked and even celebrated his indiscretions and they loved it when he stayed with the club after relegation to the second division in 1984, despite offers from Paris Saint-Germain, Sampdoria and Fiorentina. Then the club management could tolerate his lifestyle no longer. They were fed up with trawling the local discos to find him at 4am and so he left for Valladolid in 1984. There, his contract stipulated that he was to be paid $700 for every game he played and nothing for the ones he missed. He lasted nine games.

Free from the distraction of football, the wizard's partying continued until a new Cadiz coach tempted him back. This time, Magico stayed for five years, cementing his legend. He still loved discos, but by this time had learnt to avoid any search parties from his club by hiding in the DJ booth - where he later admitted sleeping on many occasions. He slept in and missed the start of one game against Barcelona, but with Cadiz losing 1-0 at half-time, the wizard was reluctantly released onto the field. He scored twice as Cadiz won the game.

Back in El Salvador, he has been awarded the highest civilian honour and the national stadium now bears his name.

Another player who liked a drink was Scottish winger Ted McMinn. He was affectionately nicknamed 'The Tin Man' and became a legend as much for his inelegant running style as his love of lager. One former Rangers team mate reckoned McMinn once ran down the wing at full speed, and having crossed the ball from the by line was unable to stop so he jumped over the wall into the Copland Road stand, where he ran up the stairs and promptly disappeared into the stand.

McMinn broke into professional football aged 20 at his local club Queen of the South, realising his boyhood ambition to play for them. He then played for clubs as diverse as Rangers, Sevilla, Derby County, Burnley and Slough Town. At Rangers, where he played between 1984-87, manager Graham Souness said: "How can I tell Ted what to do when he doesn't know what he's going to do?"

Admitting that he stepped out of line too often at Ibrox under Souness, he joined former manager Jock Wallace in Andalusia. In a single season at Sevilla, he broke his leg early, but recovered in time to play 22 times and see the fans protest when he announced he was returning to Britain. He was held in such esteem that his name was above Diego Maradona's on Sevilla's centenary strip.

Injury would scar McMinn's career - and his life after his career, yet despite the short spells he stayed at clubs, the ebullient winger always ended up being a fans' favourite.

In 2008, an infection in a cut became so bad that half of his foot had to be removed, before a surgeon told him that he was better having his leg taken off below the knee. It was a shock, but despite the pain he went through every day, McMinn continued to play golf and accepted an invitation to play in The Open for amputees.

Our third hero would describe himself as Basque not Spanish, but it's not his nationality which gave him cult status.

It wasn't quite what UEFA's Michel Platini had in mind when he suggested a salary cap, but at the start of the 2009-10 season, Athletic Bilbao's Joseba Etxeberria announced that he wanted to play for the club he had represented since 1995 for free. It was seen as the antithesis of the greed that enveloped football.

Capped 53 times by Spain, the distinguished winger started out at Athletic's Basque neighbours Real Sociedad in 1995, his £3 million transfer (then a record for an Under-18 player in Spain) controversial.

Sociedad were outraged that their great young hope was joining their main rivals and felt that a gentlemen's agreement not to poach each others' junior players had been broken. The two clubs even broke off formal relations for two years.

Etxeberria failed to appear at La Real's home in San Sebastian the following season, so he missed the giant peseta notes that his old fans had made for him, accusing him of being a mercenary. He would return later and in 2001 scored twice, when the abuse was so bad that Sociedad were fined by the Spanish Federation for the conduct of their fans.

Etxeberria was never a mercenary. He'd supported Athletic as a kid and once there, never moved again as the Basque only club turned down several bids for the player. He had played over 500 games for Athletic and spurned a final lucrative contract when he said: "I wanted to do this gesture as a thank you to the behaviour of the club towards me and the love I have received from so many people."

His testimonial pitted Athletic's first XI against 200 local schoolkids, who had 100 on the pitch at a time including three goalkeepers.

His selflessness made Athletic's cult hero even more popular and freed up money to be spent developing other home-grown talents. Those talents became clear to see in the Europa League last season, something the Wizard and The Tin Man would happily raise a glass to.

View comments (5)